A virtual vacation with Google Earth and Street View may be just what you need right now

We could all use a vacation these days. The constant bombarding of Coronavirus news, inability to go outside or make contact with other human beings, persistent stress over cleaning and disinfecting everything, and uncertainty over the future are becoming too daunting for everyone. With traveling out of the question, I started thumbing through old photos I’ve taken during my trips, reminiscing about better times and nicer places, then it occurred to me that I could do something similar but also discover new countries and cities I’ve never visited, all through the magic of Google Earth and Street View. Let me to explain how you can also do that.

Stroll through any city or town

All of us have Google Maps installed on our devices. You don’t need anything more than that to explore any road that’s been photographed by Google’s Street View Car. Simply open Maps and tap on the layer button on the top right, below the search bar, then enable the Street View layer. This will display a blue line on any street with available first-person navigation.

Left: Enable the Street View layer. Middle: All blue lines indicate available content. Right: Driving through the Champs-Élysées.

Now tap anywhere there’s a blue line and you should enter the Street View mode. There, you can swipe on the indicator paths to go back or forth in the street, move your finger around to change the direction you’re looking at, and take a turn when you reach a crossroad. It’s all super fun and one of the easiest ways to discover a foreign place without having to be there.

I’ve used this quite often in the past while planning trips to check my hotel’s surroundings and see if access to the metro is easy, as well as to get a better perspective of certain attractions and famous places. Right now, I’m using it to drive through the busy Champs-Élysées and reminisce about that one year I lived in Paris, then I’m jumping to Reykjavik, a city I’ve never been to before, to walk around and soak in some of that Nordic calm and cool.

Maps - Navigate & Explore
Maps - Navigate & Explore

Enjoy 360 views from all over the globe

The world has a lot places worth exploring that aren’t streets or avenues. If you’re interested in checking out the inside of buildings, venturing to places off the beaten path, or visiting cities that haven’t yet been photographed by Google’s cars, you need to get the standalone Street View app. It has all the content available in Maps, plus categorized collections and user-submitted 360 images (Google likes to call them Photo Spheres) from all over the world.

The app has two main tabs: Featured and Explore; I’ll start with the first one. Once you pinch and zoom to any area on Earth, you can see featured collections from Google’s own team. These usually include highlights from different thematically or geographically-related locations, like “Iconic streets,” “Street Art,” “Creative sculptures around the world,” “Italy highlights, or “Mexico shopping malls.”

Checking out featured collections in the area you’ve selected.

Once you’ve selected a collection, you can scroll through the images it contains and pick one to view. Some of these are interactive too, so you can tap the white arrows to move around the space. Bonus point if you have a Google Cardboard lying around: You can see everything in VR and simply tilt and turn your head to discover places as if you’re there. I used this to check out the inside of the Colosseum in Rome, then walked around the Canadian Parliament Building. I had no idea the latter was that huge and beautiful.

The second tab in the app helps you explore user-submitted content. Search for any place — literally any place — and the app will point out in small blue dots all the 360 pics uploaded by visitors who have been there. Hallstatt, one of my favorite European towns, hasn’t been mapped by Google’s Street View rig yet, but thankfully, lots of people have uploaded images of the town’s shore, center, salt mine, and lake.

Exploring Hallstatt through other people’s eyes.

Every pic stands on its own here. You can’t use arrows to move around, but you can simply tap any blue dot to open the image taken there or scroll through the cards of the most popular pics, then go back and choose another. For a special dose of peace, I recommend the pics taken from boats inside the Hallstätter See, or the high mountain snaps. It’s really a magical, soothing place.

Other places you should check out for a dose of tranquility are Tourlida’s fishermen cabins in Missolonghi and the views from any Meteora Sunset Point in Greece. Of course, you can go the other way and jump straight into the hectic Times Square in New York or frenetic Thamel street in Kathmandu. Go wild or go calm, no one is stopping you.

Google Street View
Google Street View

Discover hidden gems and learn about them

While using the Street View app, I noticed one limitation that I hadn’t anticipated: There’s no central repository with all of Google’s special collections. You have to pan and zoom to a certain region before you see them, which means that new and unexpected content may elude you. Thankfully, there’s a solution, but it requires another app: Google Earth.

Open the side menu in Earth (three lines on the top left) and choose Voyager. This will let you travel in time and space, by opening a directory of all of Google’s special collections, which include per-country highlights, thematic collections like global airports, Unesco World Heritage Sites, Games of Thrones locations, and also some interesting and quirky selections. You can, for example, visit the International Space Station, go inside the Marum volcan crater, delve behind the scenes of CERN, or check the views from the top of Burj Khalifa.

Taking a virtual trip with Google Earth’s Voyager collections.

The best part here are the added descriptions and information. Every site or picture is accompanied by a short blurb explaining its history, what’s special about it, or what people think of it.

Every collection is presented a little bit differently. Some include static photos, others have 360 pics, and others even let you walk around like you would in Street View. But all of them are unique and interesting. I’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu, and this is as close as I’ll get… for a while.

Google Earth
Google Earth

Nothing can beat a real immersion in a country’s culture, its sounds and smells and people, and the hundreds of adventures and experiences you can have by physically being there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a taste of it from the comfort of your bed or couch, discover places you’ve never been, or revive your memories of those you’ve already visited. Just grab your phone and make sure you’re free for a few hours. I lost track of time researching this piece, delving into unknown regions, and bookmarking cool places I’d like to go to one day. Hopefully, we’ll all be able to pack our suitcases and travel for real, soon.


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